It’s not easy being so helpful anymore

I have never met a financial adviser that hasn’t provided pro-bono advice. While the formal programs run by the associations are a valuable and large part of pro-bono advice, I am talking more about the small to medium business advisers who just did stuff as it arose. They heard about someone doing it tough, a client experienced disaster, or they were approached by someone who knew someone.

And then that crisis was dealt with professionally for the person struggling, allowing them to cope with less stress. Sometimes they paid a small fee, often none, but the common theme is that the adviser donated a lot of time and expertise, usually without fanfare.

Helping people is what makes many go into the financial advice profession in the first place. Sure you have financial skills, but the main goal is to solve problems and make a difference.

Many financial advisers feel like they woke up one day on a cheap and dangerous reality TV show, with slippery stepping-stones over murky water leading to the “big win” of just being able to do your job. Every so often someone moves the stepping stones further apart, or tips in a wobbly one, and then without warning a huge crocodile snaps at you and you have to take a leap.

There is distraction from that thing floating around your head that might be a mosquito just causing an itch, might be some “brilliant” new legislative idea, or might be that damned virus. If you fall in, you are a goner, and you join the ever-growing crowd who are now “former financial planners”, without your identity or income, without the clients you know so well, and unsure what’s next.

It’s different now. You have always walked a challenging path, but there were big warning signs, you had time to prepare, and the tasks were achievable. It was a fun path, there were hills, but you felt the rewards were worth the effort.

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You have always encountered people off to the side, reaching out. Unable to help themselves but able to get on the path with you, you enjoyed putting your hand out, and pulling them up. It might have slowed your journey a little, but it felt good and you weren’t fussed because the world was a better place.

But now, you can barely make the journey yourself, and so many of your peers have fallen. Reaching out for that hand is a huge risk and could cost you everything. The journey is not fun anymore, but if you don’t reach out you know some of those people will drown.

So how do you meet all these challenges, whilst also doing some pro-bono work?

We all know it is getting harder to help people even for a reasonable fee. You are working longer hours for less income, and always have that worry of the extra that needs to be done and the deadlines looming.

There are some great advice coaches helping practices get organised, find their niche, organise their service offers, and charge appropriately. Use their services if you can. They have the experience that can make your journey easier. To their credit some have been reaching out recently to help advisers.

Regardless, you need to make sure the following things are in place if you want to enjoy your work, and re-discover the meaning behind what you do.

1. Review your service offerings and fees and make sure you stick to them.

Have you had two clients in similar situations, one is easy to deal with and one a total pain? They want A level service for D level fees. Not because they can’t afford to pay, they just don’t really want to. Because you are busy, it continues whilst you just hope they will stop after that one last issue.

It is uncomfortable to have a serious conversation about fees. You don’t like confrontation, and you don’t want to upset them. However these clients are stopping you from enjoying your work. Your other clients are subsidising their service. You are helping their retirement, to the detriment of your own. And they are using the time that you could be using to help someone who is really in need.

At the next opportunity, make it really clear what services they are paying for. Politely and helpfully tell them you are happy to do more, but fees will increase. Then if they keep demanding extra, quote them a fee before doing the work. If you can’t amicably work with them on this basis, then you will need to set them free.

2. Make sure YOU decide who you will work for pro-bono

Do not let clients decide you will work for free, but also do not let your referral partners, your other clients, your co-workers, or anyone else tell you who to take on. You are worth paying for. You have earned the right to decide for yourself who you are going to make a difference with and make a time sacrifice for.

And choose wisely. You can’t help as many people anymore and survive. If you don’t survive, you won’t be helping anyone. Decide if you have a cause you will focus on (e.g. cancer sufferers, elder abuse, or people in poverty) and only take on pro-bono clients that fit. Communicate with your peers and maybe cross-refer. If you have a passion area that you focus on you can help more people as you will have the experience to do it more efficiently.

3. Budget it into your business planning

If this is something you know you want to do, it feels good and helps your community, then do what you do best and plan for it. If you don’t have a business plan, then make one. You can’t have successful and chaotic businesses anymore. You have to know your figures, what you are doing, be compliant and stay on track.

Allow for a set number of hours per month to work pro-bono and stick to it. Then you will not feel guilty and you can focus. You will know you are making a difference within your limits. Ask your licensee or product providers for practical help, consider the Associations’ charitable funds, and if you have a team see if any of them want to contribute some time also.

4. Charge a partial fee

Some people want to pay, even if it doesn’t cover costs. I encourage this, because it raises their self-esteem and reduces guilt, but also allows you to do a bit more for them, or help a couple more people each year. Obviously the fee must be affordable, but you know their financial situation. A payment plan can help.

Sometimes a fee makes it easier. Subconsciously, some people believe that what they get for free is not worth anything. If a fee is paid they often work with you more co-operatively and are more respectful of your time. It is incredibly frustrating to take someone on without fees, and then find they waste time because they don’t understand your value.

5. Be sensible and know your worth

The number of financial planners keeps dropping, whilst the need and demand for advice increases. You don’t need to chase everyone. People are desperately looking for good advice now. You have to charge anyone who wants advice fees that cover your costs whilst obviously providing a quality service that adds value and solves problems.

If they don’t want to pay, they don’t get your advice. If they can’t pay, then set up systems to help with pro-bono advice or referral to financial counsellors. Find, create and share articles about common problems on your social media or website, and perhaps research some great educational books or videos.

No matter what, you need to remember:

- If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.

- If you don’t have a sustainable business, you won’t be there for anyone.

- Financial advice is a community, so remember to help each other.

Melinda Houghton, Insider Out

It’s not easy being so helpful anymore
Melinda Houghton
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